heavily rusted surface of a weather-worn refrigerator door
13
Sep
2016

Confessions of a Self-Taught College Instructor: Embracing the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

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Written by
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Jessica Knott
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Hard Times” by judy_and_ed; CC BY-NC 2.0

When I started graduate school and immediately became the instructor of record of a freshman composition course, I had a couple of advantages going for me. First, my parents were both educators, one in elementary school and the other at the secondary level. I had been around the theory and practice of education my entire life, and I had some minor elementary school substituting experience of my own. Second, my graduate program required that I audit a pedagogy-themed course in my first semester. This is not typical for graduate programs, even those which include teaching courses solo rather than the more traditional teaching assistantships. Having said that, I had never taught a course at the college level on my own. I had not designed a course. And I certainly had no formal training. Indeed, when I was a high school student visiting my undergraduate university prior to enrolling and considering a double major in education, I was advised explicitly by one of the English Department faculty, “If you’re going to do your discipline, do it. Don’t get distracted.” Despite that advice, I found myself at the front of a classroom even before my graduate courses met for the first time.

A lack of formal training is closer to the norm rather than the exception. In fact, sometimes instructors in higher education do not encounter teaching on their own until after finding a position post-graduation. It is unsurprising, then, that many of us teach as we were taught, modeling ourselves on our best teachers and in opposition to those who were, shall we say, less successful. Perhaps we might even perceive teaching as not really our job or, at the very least, lower in priority or status.

The reality, however, is that teaching is critical. Speaking idealistically, for many of us our discipline-specific research, while essential and valuable, only impacts limited audiences. Teaching, on the other hand, has wide-reaching influences on, over time, countless individuals, having what Howard Bowen calls “broad social consequences.” More realistically, for anyone teaching a 3/3 or higher load, teaching will comprise the vast majority of your time. According to a study about the modern academic conducted by anthropologists at Boise State University, they found that “35 percent of workweek days [are] spent on activities traditionally thought of as teaching.” In addition, another “17 percent of workweek days [are spent] in meetings,” which includes those with students, and “[t]hirteen percent of the day [is] spent on email,” which includes interactions with students.  Only “three percent of our workweek day [is] spent on primary research and two percent on manuscript writing.” We are trained for the 3-5%, but not the 35% plus.

I do believe that complete revision of the graduate education system to address this imbalance needs grave consideration. Here, as a part of such a revision, I want to urge current graduate students and early-career academics to consider an immediate and individually-helpful path: embrace the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL), both as a body of knowledge and as a discipline to which we might contribute. In this way, we can relieve some of the inadequacies of the system on an individual basis and, in engaging in the long-term battle of revising the system, provide evidence that a focus on teaching at the graduate level is productive and essential. Daniel Ginsberg’s article in Hybrid Pegagogy entitled “Learning through Conversation” is, I believe, an excellent example of these ideas. When he eventually (speaking to the lack of opportunity during his graduate program) received the opportunity to be an instructor of record as a graduate student, he describes his attempt to put “theory into practice” — the theory being that which he gained applying his “linguistic and anthropological training to classroom settings.” Ginsberg valiantly describes his failures, but what is significant is his determination to analyze the weaknesses of the course particularly from the student perspective, research and consider ways to improve his teaching, and apply these new approaches to future classes — indeed, the heart of the SOTL process. His conclusion is: “Nobody is going to tell me how to be a better teacher; I have to discover it for myself. But that doesn’t mean that I’m on my own. On the contrary, learning can only ever happen through conversation.”

Part of that conversation is engaging with the scholarship of teaching, and other conversation would be easier to come by if more graduate students were encouraged to engage in a similar process. Ginsberg’s attitude towards his teaching in graduate school indicates an early readiness for the rigorous process of critical teaching. Such readiness on a broader scale would translate to better preparation for jobs, to improved learning experiences of students, and to more effective meeting of the goals of higher education in general.

SOTL has been a growing field of research for decades. SOTL is, as Randy Bass stated in 1999, “not merely the existence of a scholarly component in teaching, but a particular kind of activity, in which faculty engage, separate from the act of teaching, that can be considered scholarship itself.” Nationally, in many institutions, this interest in pedagogical study has given rise to the creation of centers for teaching and learning (which go by a number of names) with a mission to support pedagogy in higher education. Indeed, it was through the center at my university that I encountered SOTL — first as a new faculty participant and then as the director, a position for which I volunteered because I believe in the necessity of this kind of professional development.

Ken Bain, in What the Best College Teachers Do, argues that successful college teachers perceive teaching as “an important and serious intellectual (or artistic) act, perhaps even as a kind of scholarship,” one that requires “the attention of the best minds in academia.” Also, he remarks that “a teacher should think about teaching (in a single session or an entire course) as a serious intellectual act, a kind of scholarship, a creation.” Pat Hutchings states that “designing a powerful course or constructing an appropriate assessment is — like other forms of scholarly work — an act of intellectual invention, with its genesis in one’s sense of what it means to know the field deeply.” We are trained researchers. If pedagogy is not going to be a systemic aspect of graduate training or until that shift has occurred, we can use our skills and experience to self-train, to prepare ourselves for the realities of our careers. In addition, frankly, we will improve the experience of our students and effectively teach the subjects to which we have devoted our lives if we have prepared ourselves via research on the science and art of teaching. By approaching our teaching as we do our discipline-specific research — that is, read broadly, study, hypothesize, apply, assess, publish, repeat — we can systematically improve and implement effective changes, evolving to meet student needs, diversity, and learning.

We have a moral imperative, given the essential function of education, which is even more critical in the current political environment, to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. For graduate students, the nature of assistantships can relegate teaching to “what must be done” in order to do “what we want to do.” It is an attitude that can carry long past graduation. Teaching is a noble profession, and it is an unfortunate aspect of higher education that it is often, in modern times at least, perceived as less valuable, either explicitly or implicitly. On a practical level, research is certainly a key component of many academic positions. The higher your teaching load, the more difficult it can be at times to complete that requirement. By embracing SOTL, you are researching and teaching simultaneously: experimenting with course design and assignments, trying new instructional technologies, etc. Why not contribute to the field by publishing what you are doing? Of course, then there is the concern that many institutions do not value pedagogical research the same as they do discipline-specific research, either on the job market or in reappointment/tenure committees. But if enough academics took it upon themselves to conduct and publish such research anyway, we might be rewarded with a culture shift, one that places teaching on the same level as research, that perceives teaching as, not an impediment to research, but a complement to it, that weighs SOTL equally to other forms of research. To begin, we can aid in this shift by rejecting negative attitudes to teaching in our own thinking.

After all, SOTL is not as far removed from our discipline-specific research as we would think. I’m sure we have all heard the aphorism that you don’t know something well until you teach it. Susan A. Ambrose, etc., in How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles to Smart Teaching refer to the “expertise gap,” when “expert instructors are blind to the learning needs of novice students” because they have forgotten what it is like to learn something for the first time and struggle with it. I would argue that an “expertise blindness” can occur in terms of our research as well, that we can miss insights because we have studied a subject for so long — rather like overlooking grammar errors in a paper you have reread over and over again. Taking the time to observe and study closely how students learn our subjects can give us new perspectives on our work, which in turn can lead to contributions to the discipline. For instance, in my observation that my students struggle to define for themselves the value of taking my courses in early British and world literatures, I have incorporated units at the beginning of the semester to allow us time to delve into this issue together. In doing so, it is necessary that I focus more deeply on my own beliefs concerning the value of studying, in particular, medieval literature, and I have reached out to other scholars in the field to do the same, which has yielded discussions that are leading to publications and conference presentations. More and more, there are discipline-specific pedagogical publications and conferences, which is a way to blend all aspects of our academic lives, rather than compartmentalizing and separating them.  By becoming accustomed while in graduate school to thinking of teaching as research and vice versa, it will become second nature — both on the individual level and eventually on the system-wide level — as more higher education personnel hopefully break from previous attitudes.

A final benefit to SOTL that I will highlight here is its ability to bring disciplines together. When graduate students are being interviewed for positions and when we are in early-career assessments, a major concern is if we are good colleagues. For those in temporary or contract positions especially, but not exclusively, it may not always be easy to demonstrate collegiality — whether due to institutional limitations, such as not being eligible to do team-teaching, or time constraints or any number of other considerations. Engaging in SOTL with colleagues in your department and outside of it is a way to find that common ground. For instance, I was involved in a project studying the effects of integrated information literacy in freshmen composition courses that brought together tenured and pre-tenured faculty, adjuncts, librarians, and administrators. The work eventually resulted in a publication as well as further collaborations on the topic of information literacy. We all teach, and we can all discuss, research, and share our experiences in teaching regardless of academic specialties or rank.

As an instructor in higher education who has for the most part found methods to teach herself the principles of pedagogy, I encourage upcoming graduate students to embrace the benefits of the scholarship of teaching and learning and continue to do so as you embark upon your careers. In our disciplines, we do not accept that what came before us is infallible. We respect traditions, but we attempt to develop new ideas, refine past assumptions, and even sometimes go in radically new directions. Why should our teaching be any different? Until the model of graduate education has caught up to these realities, we can each take responsibility for our own mindsets and approaches, and engaging in SOTL is one way to do that.


The author would like to thank Joshua R. Eyler, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University, for his advice and support in the writing of this article.

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1 Response

  1. My first citation! Thank you 🙂

    I think a lot about this issue: how can we get more people participating in SOTL? One of the main reasons I left K-12 education is the lack of opportunity for practitioner inquiry. As Adam Golub writes, K-12 instructors are forced to engage with pedagogy in a way that college teachers can just choose not to do, but it’s nonstop practice with little time for reflection and no support for scholarship. But then, at the postsecondary level, the only thing that’s valued is scholarship, and the incentives of tenure guidelines often lead professors to put the bare minimum of effort into their teaching.

    Is this a contrast: K-12 is only pedagogy, no scholarship; higher ed is only scholarship, no pedagogy?

    Or is it a common challenge: nobody has time to think about their teaching?

    I’d like to think that research-practice partnerships are the way forward, but those tend to position professors of education, rather than practitioners, as pedagogical experts. Maybe, in Utopia, we’re all teacher-researchers.

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